A Research Agenda
Committee on the Science of Science Communication:
A Research Agenda
Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
A Report of
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This activity was supported by Contract No. 10002665 from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, a grant from Climate Central via the Rita Allen Foundation, Contract No. 10002742 with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Contract No. 10002754 with The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and Contract No. 10002820 with The Hewlett Foundation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or agency that provided support for the project.
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Suggested citation: National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2017). Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/23674.
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COMMITTEE ON THE SCIENCE OF SCIENCE COMMUNICATION: A RESEARCH AGENDA
ALAN LESHNER (Chair), American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C.
DIETRAM SCHEUFELE (Vice Chair), Department of Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison
ANN BOSTROM, School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington
WANDI BRUINE DE BRUIN, Leeds University Business School, United Kingdom, and Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University
KAREN COOK, Department of Sociology, Stanford University
THOMAS DIETZ, Sociology and Environmental Science and Policy, Michigan State University
WILLIAM HALLMAN, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University
JEFFREY R. HENIG, Political Science and Education, Teachers College; Political Science, Columbia University
ROBERT HORNIK, Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania
ANDREW MAYNARD, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University
MATTHEW NISBET, Communication Studies, Northeastern University
ELLEN M. PETERS, Department of Psychology, The Ohio State University
SYLVIA ROWE, SR Strategy, Washington, D.C., and School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University
MELISSA WELCH-ROSS, Study Director
HOLLY RHODES, Program Officer
EMILY BACKES, Associate Program Officer
LETICIA GARCILAZO GREEN, Program Assistant
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Advances in science and technology have resulted in profound increases in the quality of life and health of people throughout the world, and all indicators suggest they will continue to do so long into the future. In recognition of those contributions, the public generally holds scientists and their work in high regard, and science and technology have benefited from substantial financial and other forms of public support. There are, of course, examples of cases in which the science-society relationship has experienced significant turbulence over the years—often when scientific findings conflict with religious beliefs, core human values, and long-held views or when emerging science raises ethical or political questions that science itself cannot answer. Overall, however, the relationship has been a positive one. This intimate, mutually supportive relationship between science and society places a responsibility on scientists and technologists, as citizens, to share the results of their work with the broader public so they can reap its benefits as expeditiously as possible.
Communicating about science effectively with public audiences, however, turns out to be more difficult than it might at first appear. People communicate about science for diverse reasons, there is no single audience for scientific information, and the societal contexts surrounding different scientific issues can vary considerably. Communication approaches need to be adapted to reflect the circumstances that prevail. Moreover, the complexity of scientific methods and the ways in which science progresses can also make communicating science to the public quite difficult. This challenge can be particularly acute when the issue being discussed involves either a domain in which the societal implications of the science are controversial
or substantial disagreement about the findings exists within the scientific community. Fortunately, a growing body of scientific evidence can help inform the most effective ways of communicating with the public under different circumstances, and an increasing number of organizations are working to help scientists acquire the necessary communication skills. This report reviews the evidence about effective approaches to science communication and offers an agenda to help guide future research in this area. It is intended to be useful to both the practitioners of science communication and the researchers who study it.
We are extremely grateful to our colleagues on the Committee on the Science of Science Communication of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for their commitment, expertise, diligence, and wisdom in reviewing the scientific literature on science communication and their efforts in framing the research agenda presented in this report. We also benefited greatly from the dedication, expertise, and hard work of the staff of the National Academies cited in the acknowledgements that follow.
Alan I. Leshner, Chair
Dietram Scheufele, Vice Chair
Committee on the Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda
The committee would like to acknowledge the sponsors of this study: the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Climate Central via the Rita Allen Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation.
Over the course of the study, the committee benefited from discussion with and presentations from several individuals who participated in its two public meetings. From the first of these meetings, held December 17-18, 2015, we thank Elizabeth Christopherson (Rita Allen Foundation); Paul Hanle (Climate Central); Chad English (Packard Foundation); Jerrold Bushberg (University of California, Davis School of Medicine); Cornelia Dean (New York Times; Brown University); Richard Harris (National Public Radio); Brooke Smith (COMPASS); Baruch Fischhoff (Carnegie Mellon University); Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell University); and Arthur Lupia (University of Michigan). From the second public meeting, held February 24-25, 2016, we thank Seth Mnookin (Massachusetts Institute of Technology); Noel Brewer (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill); Ed Maibach (George Mason University); Bob Inglis (RepublicEn); Brian Baird (4Pir2 Communications); Daniel Sarewitz (Arizona State University); Rush Holt (American Association for the Advancement of Science); Dominique Brossard (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Noshir Contractor (Northwestern University); and Hilda Bastian (National Center for Biotechnology Information; National Institutes of Health).
The committee also applauds the staff of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine—Melissa Welch Ross, Holly Rhodes, Emily Backes, and Leticia Garcilazo Green—for their dedication to the
study and their important contributions to the preparation of this report. We thank David Berreby, who contributed to writing draft text for the committee, and Rona Briere, who provided invaluable assistance with editing.
This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.
We thank the following individuals for their review of this report: David B. Allison, School of Public Health Dean’s Office, Office of Energetics, University of Alabama at Birmingham; David Auston, Institute for Energy Efficiency, University of California, Santa Barbara; John C. Besley, Department of Public Relations, Michigan State University; Rick E. Borchelt, Communications and Public Affairs, Office of Science, U.S. Department of Energy; Dominique Brossard, Life Sciences Communication, University of Wisconsin–Madison; James M. Druckman, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University; R. Brian Haynes, Health Information Research Unit, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario; Bruce V. Lewenstein, Department of Communications, Cornell University; Rebekah Nagler, School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Minnesota; Rajiv N. Rimal, Department of Prevention and Community Health Milken Institute School of Public Health, George Washington University; Brooke Smith, COMPASS, Portland, Oregon; Elke U. Weber, Departments of Energy and the Environment, Psychology and Public Affairs, Princeton University.
Although the reviewers listed above provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the report’s conclusions, nor did they see the final draft of the report before its release. The review of this report was overseen by Alan Lesgold, Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh, and May R. Berenbaum, Department of Entomology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content of this report rests entirely with the authoring committee and the institution.
1 Using Science to Improve Science Communication
Purpose and Scope of This Study
The Diversity of Science Communicators and Their Goals
Goals of Communicating Science
The Simple—and False—Model of Science Communication
2 The Complexities of Communicating Science
Varying Needs for and Responses to Scientific Information
The Need for Formal Public Engagement
Challenges Posed by Scientific Content
Key Individual and Organizational Factors: Different Audiences, Different Needs
Prior Knowledge of Science: Debunking the “Deficit Model”
Ability to Understand Numeric Information
Ways of Interpreting New Information
Beliefs People Use to Explain the World
Mental Shortcuts: Heuristics, Emotion, and Motivated Reasoning
Presenting Information in Different Forms
Helping Audiences Understand Uncertainty and Complexity
The Special Case of Policy Maker Audiences
Trust and Credibility of Science Communication
Factors That Affect Trust and Credibility
Outcomes of Science Communication Affected by Trust and Credibility
Applying the Lessons of Large-Scale Science Communication Efforts
3 The Nature of Science-Related Public Controversies
The Origins and Dynamics of Science-Related Controversies
Conflicts over Beliefs, Values, and Interests
Understanding the Role of Beliefs and Values of Individuals
Communicating Science in the Context of Competing Beliefs, Values, and Interests
Tailoring Messages from Science for Understanding and Persuasion
Uncertainty about the Science Itself
Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation of Scientific Uncertainty
Communicating Uncertainty and Consensus amid Controversy
Amplified Voices of Organized Interests and Influential Individuals
Framing the Issues Involving Science
4 Communicating Science in a Complex, Competitive Communication Environment
Trends in the Communication of Science News
How Journalistic Decisions Affect Science Coverage and Audiences
How Science Is Covered in Mainstream News
How Coverage of Science Affects Public Perceptions
Opportunities for Communicating Science: Social Media, Social Networks, and Blogs
Emerging Research on Use of the Internet as a Source of Science News
5 Building the Knowledge Base for Effective Science Communication
General Conceptual and Methodological Issues
Aligning Goals with the Right Communication Approach
Using a Systems Approach to Guide Research on Science Communication
Assessing the Effectiveness of Science Communication
Comparing across National, International, and Cultural Contexts
Major Challenges for Practice and Research in Science Communication
Understanding the Converging Influences on Science Communication
Engaging Formally with the Public about Science
Understanding the Special Complexities of Communicating Science in the Face of Public Controversy
Conflicts over Beliefs, Values, and Interests
Uncertainty in Science-Related Controversy
Amplified Voices in Science-Related Controversy
Communicating Science in a Complex, Dynamic, and Competitive Communication Media Environment
Additional Questions for Research
Building a Coherent Science Communication Research Enterprise